Hampton University President William Harvey has spent 44 years making decisions using one guiding principle: Do what’s right and best.
Not all decisions have been popular, but his choices helped turn a once-struggling Hampton Institute into Hampton University with Virginia’s first proton therapy cancer treatment center. It also became the first historically Black school to lead a NASA mission, launching a satellite into space to study clouds.
Harvey will retire in June after graduating nearly 40,000 students, adding 92 academic degrees — including 12 doctoral programs — and 30 buildings to the campus over those four-plus decades. He also oversaw the growth of the university’s endowment from $29 million to $400 million.
“The growth and development that I have witnessed under Dr. Harvey’s successful leadership have been, in a word, triumphant,” Trustee Wesley Coleman said in a statement after Harvey announced his retirement plans in December 2020. “The significance of this president’s legendary contributions to Hampton will be celebrated for generations.”
Hampton’s proton therapy institute, which opened in September 2010, was the eighth in the country and first at a Historically Black College and University. It has provided treatment to more than 3,000 cancer patients.
Before opening the treatment center, the university already was the first Virginia school to offer a medical physics graduate program, which partnered with a nearby federal nuclear research facility.
The proton therapy institute was created to be an “environment where science and compassion meet,” where researchers can advance the treatment of prostate, breast and lung cancer. One of the goals is for researchers to find ways to reduce damage to healthy tissue near the cancerous cells.
“I believe in service. I believe in helping others — and I don’t believe in doing it in a second-hand manner,” Harvey said. “That’s why, Hampton is, I think, one of the wonders of the world.”
Harvey, 81, was born in Brewton, Alabama. He owns degrees from Talladega College, Virginia State University and Harvard University, as well as 11 honorary doctorates.
He’s served on numerous boards, including the National Geographic Society, National Merit Scholarship Corporation and National Collegiate Athletic Association, and is the sole owner of a plant that bottles Pepsi products in Houghton, Michigan.
Harvey prides himself on the fact that he’s met with every sitting president since Jimmy Carter, and two presidents — George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama — have sat on a couch in his office.
Harvey worked at Harvard after graduating from the school and was slated for promotion to an assistant dean when he decided to move south and work at a predominately Black school. Growing up as the son of a civil rights activist, it was important for him to be at an institution that gave opportunities to Black students.
“Back in the ‘60s you didn’t have very many African Americans in a place like Harvard,” Harvey said. “I wanted to use my training, my energy, my effort toward supporting African Americans.
“All of my mentors and advisors said that I probably was making a mistake because my star would have risen faster if I’d stayed at Harvard. They may have been right, but what I said to them was that I had to follow my north star — not their north star.”
He worked in administration at Tuskegee and Fisk before landing at Hampton in 1978 to serve as the school’s 12th president.
Harvey said he planned to run the school like a business for educational purposes. Hampton Institute hadn’t had a balanced budget for more than 30 years, and there were talks about dissolving the college to turn it into a prep school.
As president, Harvey made several cuts, including limiting travel for staff and faculty to keep the university operating within the revenue it generated. He’s prided himself on keeping the school’s budget balanced every year.
“My daddy used to say, ‘Life is simple. People make it complicated,” Harvey said.
Harvey has seen the occasional student protest but said he tries to work with student leaders to find solutions — such as when students told him that the dining hall was insufficient. He helped raise $25 million for a new facility, which opened in 2012. When complaints about the dining hall and food resurfaced in 2018, the school established a group of 10 students to meet monthly to discuss concerns.
Under Harvey’s leadership, academics have improved and the average SAT score for accepted students has risen by more than 300 points. But recently, Hampton has faced challenges with the accreditation of its School of Pharmacy.
Hampton has sued the Accrediting Council on Pharmacy Education for refusing to accredit the program and the matter is still before the court. Students enrolled through the class of 2023 will not be affected and will graduate with the same rights and privileges as those from accredited programs.
Before Harvey announced his plans to retire, he and the university also had to weather the pandemic. He was criticized for requiring faculty and staff to come to campus until early April — weeks after students were sent home.
Some were upset again after he made Hampton the first college in Virginia to require students, faculty and staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The school offered religious and medical exemptions, but 99% of students and 98% of faculty and staff are vaccinated.
Harvey said he “really doesn’t care if people are going to push back on things that are right.”
More than two years into the pandemic, campus visitors still need to have a negative COVID test administered by the school and must undergo temperature checks.
“I always say do what you think is right and best, and then let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
Harvey was recently criticized for opening the university’s doors for the upcoming summer semester to students from Ukraine.
Some, he says, felt as though the predominately Black university shouldn’t be focused on helping the predominately white Ukrainian students, especially when there are Black students in need.
But Harvey said, for him, it’s not about race. He was moved to tears as he talked about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and recent bombings of homes, children and maternity wards.
Since starting at Hampton, he’s met monthly with student leaders and faculty. He’s also had 17 of his administrators go on to become presidents of other colleges.
Harvey emphasized that he has loved being Hampton’s president. In fact, he would devote at least two or three hours a day to working in his office on weekends and holidays. Still, he knew it was his time to retire.
“I’m not a spring chicken anymore,” Harvey said. “I’m 81 years old, but my energy level and my mental acuity, I feel like I did 50 or 60 years ago.”
But he knows it won’t always be that way. He’s got other things to accomplish.
Harvey plans to use his retirement to write. He released his first book in 2016 “Principles of Leadership: The Harvey Leadership Model,” with 10 chapters on leadership, which covered everything from having a vision and a work ethic to being innovative.
He has one book finished that’s been delayed because of the pandemic and another on the way. After that, he says it’ll be time to get to work on his memoir. He plans to title it “The Journey was the Reward” because “every single place that I’ve ever been was terrific.”
“I believe, as honestly as I can look you in the eyes and tell you, the Lord has ordered my steps because I could not have done all the things that I have done if that had not been the case,” he said.
Last month, Hampton University announced that retired Lt. Gen. Darrell K. Williams will be its next president. Williams earned his bachelor’s degree in 1983 from then-Hampton Institute. He also has three master’s degrees from other colleges.
Harvey said he hopes that under Williams’ leadership the university will “continue to excel.” He said the school had more than 23,000 applicants for roughly 1,000 slots in its freshmen class.
As for his future involvement with the university, Harvey plans to take the lead from Williams.
“If he doesn’t ask me, I’m not going to get involved at all,” Harvey said. “If he asks me, I’ll be just as involved as he wants me to be because, for me, I love Hampton.”